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A wave of retirements both big and small is sweeping across the peloton at the end of 2013.
A generational change coupled with the closure of four major teams means that dozens of riders are either leaving the sport on their own terms or are facing unemployment and have no other choice than to bring a premature end to their racing careers.
Marco Pinotti, who announced his retirement on Thursday, was one of the lucky ones. The 37-year-old Italian leaves the sport untarnished by doping scandals and will slot into a new position at BMC Racing, where he will work as a coach alongside the team’s performance director, Allan Peiper, and former pro Bobby Julich.
“I’m happy with how my career went. I look back to 15 years ago, I didn’t think I was going to have a career like this,” Pinotti told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown. “I wasn’t one of the biggest or best talents of my generation, but I was able to obtain what I did thanks to my work.”
Then there was Mikel Astarloza, the Basque climber who tested positive for EPO ahead of the 2009 Tour, a charge he denied.
Astarloza, 33, would have liked to have raced a few more seasons, but with his Euskaltel-Euskadi team folding, he couldn’t find a new ride.
“I would have liked to have continued, but I will be 34 next year,” Astarloza said last week. “Considering the circumstances, I felt it was the right time to make a change.”
Efforts to save the team from oblivion, led by Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, collapsed last month, leaving dozens of Euskaltel riders scrambling to find rides.
A few top riders found new teams — including Mikel Nieve (to Sky), Mikel Landa (to Astana), and the Izagirre brothers (both to Movistar) —but dozens are desperate, and know that their careers might well end sooner than they would have hoped. Even top Euskaltel riders such as Igor Antón and Samuel Sánchez are not guaranteed contracts next year.
“The Alonso news was welcomed, but then they pulled the rug out from under us,” Egoi Martínez told VeloNews. “Now many of us who were hoping to race next year are looking at being unemployed. It’s not easy for those of us with mortgage payments to make.”
That story is repeated across the peloton as Vacansoleil-DCM, Sojasun, and Champion System are also shuttering at the end of 2013.
Belgian rider Thomas De Gendt held off the executioner. The 2012 Giro d’Italia podium man found a final-hour contract with Omega Pharma-Quick Step late last week.
Other top Vacansoleil riders such as Johnny Hoogerland and Grega Bole are still desperately searching for contracts, while Juan Antonio Flecha has given up hope, saying on Sunday that he’d call it a career.
In this environment, teams can low-ball riders and get anyone left without a contract on the cheap. De Gendt told reporters he took an 80 percent pay cut.
October is the worst time of year to be looking for a job. One rider representative told VeloNews that by the Vuelta, most major teams only had one or two spots left on their respective rosters.
“Do you sign a veteran rider, who demands a lot more money, or sign a young talent to give them a chance?” the agent said. “This time of year, teams know the ball is in their corner.”
Champion System’s decision last month caught team management by surprise, leaving them no time to find a new sponsor in time to pull things together for 2014.
That means that American riders Chris Butler, Craig Lewis, and Chad Beyer are joining those riders scrambling to continue their careers.
The dynamics of teams, budgets, results, and sponsorship interests mean that no one is immune.
Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov pulled his money out of Saxo Bank, leaving Bjarne Riis some 6 million euros short on budget. The Dane is now scrambling to find a stopgap, and there were media reports this week that Contador has agreed to take a pay cut to help keep the team together for 2014.
Tinkov, meanwhile, has said via Twitter that he has found a new team for 2014, reportedly Cannondale (team officials would not comment on the reports Sunday to VeloNews), meaning that one team’s famine can turn into another’s feast.
In cycling, a rider is only as good as last week’s results.
Tyler Farrar, who has been close but not quite close enough to big wins the past two seasons, ended the Vuelta without a contract. A victory this week at the former Franco-Belge race saved his season, and the America sprinter told Belgian journalists Saturday that he was staying with Garmin for 2014.
Veteran South African sprinter Robert Hunter was not offered a contract extension with Garmin-Sharp, and could not find another team, putting an unceremonious end to his 14-year career that included stages in the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Hunter was caught out as part of a directional change at Garmin, which is putting more focus on GC and young, promising talent.
Others simply decided the time is right to pull the plug on their racing careers. Sandy Casar, the classy French climber, decided he’d had enough at 36.
On the other end of the spectrum was Canadian David Veilleux, who, at 25, unexpectedly decided to return to university despite becoming the first Quebecois to race the Tour and having won a stage at this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
Christian Vande Velde, 37, ended his career quietly last month at the pro team time trial world championship in Italy. Vande Velde returned to racing this year after serving a controversial six-month ban after stepping forward as one of the witnesses in the USADA doping investigation into U.S. Postal Service that resulted in a lifetime ban for Lance Armstrong.
“I’ve had insane highs, and really low lows,” Vande Velde told VeloNews editor in chief Neal Rogers. “As to what people think of my career … having the most well-rounded career ever, as far as that goes, racing for minimum [salary] to top five in the Tour de France a few years later. I begged [Vaughters] for a job eight years ago.”
David Zabriskie, another one of the witnesses in the Armstrong case, told reporters in Italy that Sunday’s Giro di Lombardia was his final race as a professional, ending his career without much fanfare.
Stuart O’Grady is another rider who would have liked to have rewritten the ending to his long career. The veteran Aussie was forced to admit he used EPO during the 1990s, hastening the end of his career that included a record number of Tours and victory in the 2007 Paris-Roubaix. O’Grady said he stopped using EPO after the 1998 Tour, the same year that the Festina Affaire uncovered the lid on organized doping within the peloton.
“When the Festina Affair happened, I smashed it, got rid of it and that was the last I ever touched it,” O’Grady told the Adelaide Advertiser. “That’s the hardest thing to swallow out of all this — it was such a long time ago and one very bad judgment is going to taint a lot of things and people will have a lot of questions.”
Other riders remain in limbo. The 2013 Vuelta a España champion Chris Horner, told VeloNews on Friday that he does not have a contract for next season.
Others caught out in the game of musical chairs include Juanjo Cobo, the 2011 Vuelta champion who has underperformed for two seasons with Movistar; and Luis León Sánchez, the Spanish rider on Belkin who’s been on-again, off-again linked to the Operación Puerto scandal dating back to 2006.
Others seem to fade away without anyone really noticing.
Riders who once made an impact or who packed some hype but have long been at the fringes of the sport are quietly exiting stage left. Among them are Italian sprinter Angelo Furlan, 36; Anthony Charteux, who won the King of the Mountains jersey in the 2011 Tour, and Tadej Valjevec, the Slovenian climber who saw his career derailed after getting nabbed by the biological passport in 2010.
Denis Menchov, who finished on the podium of the 2010 Tour, abruptly retired in May, citing knee problems. A winner of both the Giro and Vuelta, the veteran Russian was dogged by doping allegations, but never tested positive.
Less well known is Markus Fothen, 32, who won the 2003 U23 world time trial crown and was hyped as a possible successor to Jan Ullrich. After Milram folded in 2010, he raced for a small continental team for the past three years without any significant results. Not many will be writing about his retirement.
Such is life as a professional cyclist. There is constant pressure to perform, to find the right team, and to do it the right way. In many ways, despite the advances made over the past three decades, riders remain prisoners of the road, and only a few can ever make enough money to fully secure their financial future.